Going Green, Gradually: Catching Up with Local Motors and Its Crowd-Sourced Car

4/13/09Follow @wroush

The Rally Fighter is half dune buggy, half muscle car. Designed for off-road racing in the deserts of the Southwest, it looks a lot like any ride you might see on the cover of Road & Track. But what’s different about the Rally Fighter is that it’s a product of the Web 2.0 revolution: it was the winning design in an online competition that Wareham, MA-based Local Motors conducted last fall among its growing Web-based community of amateur and freelance automotive designers.

Crowdsourcing the design process through regionally-themed online design contests is half of Local Motors’ business model. The other half is “mass customizing” the actual vehicles at a network of what the company calls “micro-factories.” If you’re going to start a car company these days, you might as well try a radical new approach—and that’s definitely what co-founder, president, and CEO Jay Rogers is doing. My December 18 story has all the history and details.

On Friday, I reconnected with Iraq vet and Harvard MBA Rogers by phone to get the latest news about Local Motors—and to ask him for his opinion about other vehicle-related events in the news, including the first flight of Terrafugia’s “roadable aircraft” and this week’s unveiling by GM and Segway of the P.U.M.A., a multi-passenger vehicle that balances on two wheels like the famous Segway Personal Transporter. I also probed a bit about the seeming disconnect between Local Motors’ self-avowed green mission—he talked a lot back in December about the nation’s dependence on foreign oil, and about how to make cars lighter and more fuel-efficient—and the fact that the company’s first product is a racecar built to tear around the desert. He had some interesting responses, which you’ll see toward the end of the following transcript.

Xconomy: We last talked in mid-December. What’s been happening at Local Motors since then?

Local Motors CEO and co-founder Jay Rogers

Local Motors CEO and co-founder Jay Rogers

Jay Rogers: We just passed our first anniversary, and one of the big things that stands out is that on the day of our birthday, March 25, we were invited to a Web-based conference [organized by Canadian automotive journalist Michael Banovsky] with Bertone, one of the top two automotive design houses in the world. It was an incredible recognition of what we have achieved in just 12 months. We are known enough that people see us as a design firm that has put together something notable. It shows the power of Web 2.0 to create a new entity. These older design houses don’t have the bandwidth to create a lot of new concepts, and as governments and everyone else around the world are looking at how to reinvigorate stale parts of the auto industry, we make a very compelling alternative.

Since December we have also run two or three more competitions. We just finished Chicago and the Carolinas and are about to launch Detroit. That is going to be much more toward the practical end than the conceptual end. We are going to do a design for the budding entrepreneurs in Detroit. A lot of machinists and pattern makers, as you can imagine, are out of work. What they need is a jobber’s car—a coupe with a roach coach or a hold for a set of tools, something that’s economical and isn’t a big truck. It’s going to be a real exercise in how Local Motors can target a vehicle that is relevant to a local area, especially one that is as embattled as Detroit.

The other thing is that we are in negotiations right now in Phoenix, Arizona, and here in Massachusetts to place our first micro-factory. We don’t have anything to announce just yet, but we are in some very exciting negotiations and are going to end up with a very good location in one or the other place, or it could very well be both.

We were also applying for the federal assistance program from the Department of Energy for new vehicle manufacturing concepts. At the time we last talked, GM and Chrysler were looking to hog a lot of that money. But this week, those companies were determined to be non-viable, which means they are not eligible for those loans. Which means we have a much better shot at getting some money. That’s a very positive thing.

One more thing we did which was actually very exciting was that we began to flex our muscles in the competitions, and instead of just doing exterior design, we ran an interior design competition for the Rally Fighter, our first model. Critics were saying “You can’t open-source the design of a car,” but this showed an entirely different face of our design competition. The winning concept is now going to be the interior of the Rally Fighter.

We are also breaking down [the design competitions] into discrete parts. We needed an air extractor for our engine bay, and we got 50 to 60 side-vent ideas in about six days. We posted it Friday night and we were done by the next Wednesday. Because this was so successful, we are going to be running more discrete engineering projects as competitions, instead of us doing them ourselves. It’s great for us to go to the community like this.

X: How is the Rally Fighter coming? When I visited, you had a full-scale model, but it was made of blue foam.

JR: The Rally Fighter’s body is going to be frozen this week. That means the look and feel, all of the micro-details, which is a huge achievement for us. If you were to look at it today, you’d see a … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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